Only 6 percent of the students participating in the first year of the federally financed private-school-voucher program for the District of Columbia came from public schools designated as being in need of improvement, according to a report released last week by the People for the American Way Foundation.
The liberal watchdog group, which opposes private school vouchers, said fewer than 80 of the 1,300 children in the 8-month-old program came from such low-performing schools, though Congress said enrollment of those students was a priority when it created the program. The remaining vouchers, worth up to $7,500 a year, went to students who were attending other public schools in Washington or who were already enrolled in private schools.
Judith E. Schaeffer, the deputy legal director for the Washington-based organization, said the low participation by students who were supposed to be targeted by the federal voucher experiment was a surprise “and quite a disturbing fact.”
The 22-page report was drawn from a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the PFAW Foundation, as well as previously published information. The report describes a program it claims was desperate to enroll students and to keep the low participation figures out of the public eye.
The report cites e-mails between Sally J. Sachar, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the $12.1 million voucher program, and Nina S. Rees, who oversees the program as a deputy undersecretary in charge of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement.
When the program began, 15 public schools in Washington were designated as being in need of improvement, based on 2002-03 test data. In a June 2004 e-mail to Ms. Rees and others about the wording of a press release about the student demographics, Ms. Sachar wrote: “Can/ should we say anything about how many are from the 15 needs improvement. Pretty sure we do not want to say this, but just wondering.”
The pair also worried via e-mail about the relatively large number of voucher recipients who were already enrolled in private schools. Though public school students were given priority, private school students received 208 vouchers.
Another e-mail from Ms. Rees to Ms. Sachar asked for enrollment numbers before they were publicly released, so she could notify members of Congress, including Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for education. Mr. Specter “wants it and while I hate the guy, we need to be nice to him I am told,” Ms. Rees said in her e-mail.
More Outreach Planned
In response to the criticism, Ms. Rees and Ms. Sachar said last week that the report was coming from a group that clearly wants to damage the voucher program. There was no attempt to hide or distort participation in the program, they said. The foundation also made no attempt to contact them, they said.
Ms. Rees said the PFAW report twisted the e-mails to make them appear as damaging as possible.
“I think they’ve selectively picked the quotes to make it look like we’re hiding everything,” she said. The e-mails were the normal back-and-forth between the department and a group administering a federal program under a tight schedule, she said.
Ms. Rees said that she regretted her comment about Sen. Specter, adding that she has “the utmost respect for the senator. I hope he’ll let us brief him on the status of this program soon.”
Ms. Sachar said the scholarship fund has much more time to reach students this year than it did last year. Currently, 68 District of Columbia schools are designated as being in need of improvement based on 2003-04 data, compared with the 15 that had that designation when the voucher program started. So the program now has a larger base of schools on which to focus its efforts, Ms. Sachar said.
Ms. Sachar noted that every voucher recipient had to meet the income-eligibility rules. For a family of four, annual income could be no more than $34,873.
“All students who receive scholarships are in fact very low- income—by definition. All are needy, whether they come from [schools in need of improvement], other public schools or private schools,” Ms. Sachar said.
The PFAW Foundation, in a follow-up statement, said the voucher program is still flawed.
“The answer to this problem is not to lift a few children” out of schools in need of improvement, the foundation said. “The answer is to fix public schools for all children.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Report Takes Aim at First Year of D.C. Voucher Program